Monday, September 30, 2013

1491 by Charles Mann

Having a (slightly) nerdy side, the family knows I think the book "Guns, Germs and Steel" is pretty cool.  Don't stop reading yet, just hear me out.  The idea behind that book is that the reason Europeans invaded other countries and took them over rather than the other way around (think the Aztecs taking over Spain) is that the combination of the devastating effects of European diseases on the invaded peoples combined with advanced technologies aided by written language gave the Europeans a distinct advantage.

Now comes Mr. Mann's book that is an interesting add-on to that line of thought, with a twist.  Part of the thinking has been that in most of the Americas, the natives were a somewhat docile population blended into the landscape, ready for  easy conquest.  It's mostly what we were taught in school and experience in our popular culture.

Mr. Mann contends that there were a lot more people here, who had been here much longer than many of us thought (maybe 20,000 years vs. 13,000), who had diverse modes of government, land management, plant and animal domestication, and a degree of cultural sophistication than was the equal or more to European cultures of the 15th century.

It appears that the disease effect was probably the balancing factor, since native populations may have been reduced by anywhere from 50 to 90% of what they had been only decades prior to European disease introduction.  It's a big "if" but it is likely Europeans would not have been able to gain any substantial foothold in the Americas without that devastation, because the eastern North American tribes and especially the Central and South American nations had enough tribal or regional cohesiveness along with an ability to match European weaponry and tactics that they could have easily repelled them.

The take-over did happen, though, so many folks would ask "so what?" in discussing the pre-Columbian nature of the Americas.  It's a matter of perspective.  What we experience now appears to have more contribution by those native peoples, to include food and even our form of government, than most of us knew based on what we were taught in school.  It also gives pause for thought whenever there is discussion of returning to some previous condition (the good old days) of politics, societal norms or even the environment.

As is the case with any book trying to examine a theory this broad, it's easy to disagree with some of his conclusions.  However, it is a worthwhile read for a valuable change in perspective to how most of us have seen the world until now.  It's a long book at 391 pages, not including footnotes and appendices, so you working folks might take the book in chunks if you tackle it.  Still, I'd recommend it to everyone in the family.  If you liked "Guns, Germs, and Steel" you'll like this.

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